Nonviolent resistance in the south Hebron hills

An Israeli settler yells at a Palestinian farmer in the south Hebron hills. (Christian Peacemaker Teams)

A couple of months ago I had the great pleasure of watching Palestinians successfully graze their sheep near Avigail settlement, on land where they are regularly attacked and harassed. The joy I felt in watching my friends and partners grazing their sheep on their ancestral lands was overwhelming. Sitting on the hill and eating lunch together felt like having a party.

As the day drew to an end, Mahmoud, one of the Palestinian elders, excitedly explained to me the strategy he had used in dealing with the Israeli army and settlers that morning. He told me how, even though the army had declared the area a closed military zone, he firmly stood up for his rights. He explained how he pretended to slowly begin to comply with the military order, all the while challenging the soldiers and insisting on his right to graze his sheep. Eventually, he said, the army lost control of the situation and gave in. When he finished his description, Mahmoud turned to me and grinned. “I read in a book that this is called nonviolence,” he said, laughing.

When US President Barack Obama called on Palestinians to practice nonviolence, I laughed just like Mahmoud. Palestinians like Mahmoud have never needed to be told about nonviolence. The English word may be unfamiliar but the steadfast, daily acts of resistance known as nonviolence are nothing new. In the south Hebron hills, Palestinians face Israeli soldiers and violent Israeli settlers who are illegally expanding their settlements and attacking Palestinians, including children walking to school. In response to this profound injustice, Palestinians are organizing demonstrations, refusing to comply with military orders, filing complaints against settlers, and courageously working their land despite the risk of arrest and attack. They don’t need President Obama to tell them to practice nonviolence.

Palestinians have practiced nonviolent resistance for the last 60 years. From the “Great Revolt” during the British Mandate to the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, to the loose-knit but powerful community-based movement of today. Certainly, it’s inaccurate to omit armed resistance from Palestinian history, but it is equally false to claim that Palestinians are unfamiliar with nonviolence. President Obama missed the point in his Cairo speech — Palestinians do not need to be admonished towards peacefulness. It’s radical Israeli settlers and the Israeli government who do.

Instead of preaching to Palestinians, Obama should insist emphatically on the dismantlement of Israeli settlements that violate international law and the enforcement of laws to prevent Israeli settlers from attacking Palestinian villagers, a frequent occurrence in the south Hebron hills. After 42 years of Israeli military occupation, it is time for an American president to call on Israel to stop its violence towards Palestinians.

Joy Ellison is an American activist with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization that supports Palestinian nonviolent resistance.  She lives in At-Tuwani, a small village in the south Hebron hills which is nonviolently resisting settlement expansion and violence.  She writes about her experiences on her blog, “I Saw it in Palestine.”